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Characters in Search of an Ending: Prestige Television and Literary Adaptation

The possibilities of prestige television seem limitless.

This is obvious just looking at the creative talent embracing the opportunities of the medium. Director Jane Campion observed, “The really clever people used to do film. Now, the really clever people do television.” It seems fair. Woody Allen has a television series at Amazon. Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon headlined Big Little Lies. Cary Fukunaga directed all eight episodes of the first season of True Detective, starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. Quentin Tarantino reflected, “If ever there’s been a chance for somebody to truly do a filmed novel, it’s in this area.”

There is a sense that prestige television has come to occupy the space that used to be given to mid-tier mid-range movies, thrillers and character studies that were too small to compete with the blockbusters but also weren’t an easy fit for the traditional Oscar season. Television is arguably the place to go for smart character-driven narratives telling adult stories in a restrained and considered manner. It is an interesting shift that has in some ways redefined the relationship between film and television.

Part of this has seen an increased emphasis on book-to-television adaptations. In the past, the default path for audio-visual adaptations of successful novels has been from the page to the silver screen, cinematic takes on iconic and memorable pieces of fiction. After all, countless Best Picture winners have been adaptations of popular novels or short stories; No Country for Old Men, Million Dollar Baby, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, The English Patient, Forrest Gump, Silence of the Lambs. A lot of blockbusters are inspired by comic books or young adult novels.

However, as televisual storytelling has grown more complex and ambitious, producers and writers have increasingly looked to the storytelling opportunities afforded by the smaller screen. Television offers more space for writers and directors to tell their stories, to expand out novels with complex mythologies or epic scope. The gaps that had existed between film and television, in terms of budget and talent, are rapidly closing. It is entirely possible for a televisual adaptation of a beloved novel to have a list of credible writers and directors, and recognisable on-screen talent.

Still, as much as this shift might represent an important step forward in the development of television as an artform, it also illustrates some of the problems that still exist in how producers approach the medium. While television shows can do a lot of things that novels can do, they still struggle in one respect. Television shows have yet to truly embrace the power of brevity and the weight of a proper ending.

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Is TV the Natural Medium of Comic Book Adaptations?

It recently surfaced that David E. Kelley (creator of Ally McBeal and The Practice) is working on a Wonder Woman television show. Presumably it will be somewhat less campy than the Linda Carter version. Last month news broke that there are plans for a television version of Neil Gaiman’s epic story The Sandman. Later this month we’re see the airing of a live action version of Robert Kirkman’s critically acclaimed zombie comic book The Walking Dead. Part of me wonders if this is the logical shift in the market. After all, comic books arguably have more in common with television than they do with movies. So is this the real future of these adaptations?

It's a Wonder we didn't think of this earlier...

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Civil War (Review/Retrospective)

This is the fourth in a series of comic book reviews that will look at the direction of Marvel’s “Avengers” franchise over the past five or so years, as they’ve been attempting to position the property at the heart of their fictional universe. With The Avengers planned for a cinematic release in 2012, I thought I’d bring myself up to speed by taking a look at Marvel’s tangled web of modern continuity. Get an overview of what I’m trying to take a look at here.

Civil War was Marvel’s big event of 2006-7, and – as this lovely deluxe edition loves to remind you – it was “the industry’s best selling series in over a the decade”. The premise of the series is straight-forward enough – it’s a conflict between the heroes of the Marvel Universe (it’s all there in the title) – and perhaps that is the reason that the series has arguably had more crossover mainstream appeal than the vast majority of comic book crossovers. Marvel have produced a lovely deluxe hardcover which contains just about everything you could possibly want from the event, it’s just a shame I’m not overly impressed by the event itself.

I'm sure we can iron this out...

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House of M (Review/Retrospective)

This is the third in a series of comic book reviews that will look at the direction of Marvel’s “Avengers” franchise over the past five or so years, as they’ve been attempting to position the property at the heart of their fictional universe. With The Avengers planned for a cinematic release in 2012, I thought I’d bring myself up to speed by taking a look at Marvel’s tangled web of continuity. Get an overview of what I’m trying to take a look at here.

The X-Men represent the oddball of mainstream superhero comic books. In a genre and medium dedicated offering a static setup – things never really change or resolve – the X-Men are built upon the very idea of evolution. The whole basis of the franchise is the pursuit of equality by the genetically distinct mutant population, the idea that they and mankind can grow together. It has even been frequently suggested that these super-powered individuals represent out future or our replacements. However, the only way to actually tell a story like that is to follow it through to its logical conclusion – to let the ball roll and to let the world change. It feels a little counterproductive for Charles Xavier and his students to still be fighting for the same rights as everyone else nearly fifty years on – it might even seem a little stale. Grant Morrison’s superb New X-Men run offered a solution of sorts – it gave us a world where humanity would be extinct in a couple of generations and showed the growth and relationship between human and mutant subculture. Gone was the minority struggling against an oppressive majority – a more complex example of race relations had come into play with “mutant music” and “mutant slang” making their impression on the youth, amid a silent and almost invisible middle-class backlash. This was an ingenious approach which demonstrated the relevance of the franchise. Unfortunately, Marvel were not quite pleased with this – some people even, ridiculously, accused Morrison of telling all the remaining X-Men stories – and decided to set things right. They did that through House of M.

Dive in...

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Edge of Darkness (BBC)

Keeping with the theme of nuclear annihilation that began with Doctor Strangelove yesterday, I’m taking a look at Edge of Darkness, the BBC serial which was recently remade into a (reportedly disappointing) Mel Gibson film. Directed by Martin Campbell, who would go on to save Bond twice (with GoldenEye and Casino Royale) and is directing the upcoming Green Lantern, Edge of Darkness was something of a phenomenon in British television during the eighties. Originally broadcast on BBC 2, it was popular enough that it garnered a repeat on the parent station (BBC 1) within days. That’s something practically unheard of. And, yes, it’s just that good.

How does Detective Craven bear the loss of his child?

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Geoff Johns’ Run on Green Lantern – Blackest Night: Black Lantern Corps (Vol. I & II) & Rise of the Black Lanterns

All right, gang. Let’s go shoot some zombies.

– Captain Cold, Blackest Night: Flash

It wouldn’t be a massive world-ending crisis of a DC Universe cross-over if there weren’t tie-in issues by the bucketful. Sinestro Corps War, Geoff Johns’ earlier Green Lantern mega-event, was relatively low-key in its ambitions, only really spilling across into four specials that dealt with the wider DC Universe. This time there’s close to thirty, which is, as you’d imagine, quite a lot. Given the relatively simplistic nature of the event (it’s basically “superhero zombies”), you’d be forgiven for expecting that the crossovers and tie-ins would become dull or monotonous, but they mostly avoid that. It’s partially due to the variety of perspectives offered, but also due to the extremely talented pool of writers and artists on hand.

As cold... as ice...

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The Pacific: Parts One & Two

There are things men can do to one another that are sobering to the soul; and it’s one thing to square it with god, and another to square it with yourself.

– Leckie, Part One

I know that The Pacific is airing in the States a good few weeks ahead of us, but the first episode of the show (well, a double bill) just landed here in the UK and Ireland on the ever wonderful Sky Movies. I’m probably going to do a little summary of my thoughts on the whole show when it finishes airing, but I do have some initial thoughts that might bear putting into words. It’s a great time to be watching television, isn’t it?

It shouldn't be that hard to convince you to watch The Pacific...

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Torchwood: Children of Earth Review

That was… intense, in a word.

I really didn’t come to the miniseries expecting too much. The first two seasons of Torchwood had been entertaining – for the most part – but nothing special, and seemingly lacking the va va voom of its older sister series. The promise of a more mature and considered Doctor Who was more-or-less unfulfilled – unless you consider nudity and sex jokes to be mature. Then Children of Earth aired.

Frobisher initially thought the alien ambassador was full of hot-air...

Frobisher initially thought the alien ambassador was full of hot-air...

Note: This review contains spoilers. Really. Lots and lots of spoilers. If you want a recommendation: go watch it. It’s the best sci-fi you’ll see on TV this year. Then come back and talk about it.

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Torchwood: Children of BBC Sci-Fi

I have to admit, my family’s hooked to Torchwood: Children of the Earth playing on the BBC at the moment. For those unfamiliar with the concept and execution, it’s a five-part epic that is playing at 9pm every night this week. It’s the type of television event that shows why the BBC might just be the best broadcasters in the world – the show is perfect for the format. The tension is elevated by the fact we know the run will end on Friday, the budget is clearly there for all the spectacle and all the talent involved is top notch. It’s the kind of thing that I wish that RTE might pick up on, even once. The really beautiful thing about this run is that manages to demonstrate that not only are the Beeb doing something very well, but they’ve been doing it well all along. From what we’ve seen so far, Children of the Earth can hold its head high with all the other great science fiction events the channel has pulled off over the years.

Back in black...

Back in black...

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Home Entertainment

I just finished the third season of The Wire on DVD. I am impressed. I never caught the show the first time around, so – as with many of today’s fine televisual treats – it seems to be one best sampled on DVD, at your own pace. It’s a fantastic saga that really capitalises on the previous two seasons (which, while very good fell just short of greatness). I may not be entirely convinced that it is, loike, the best TV show in the world… ever, but I can see why George Hook likes the show.

As I was watching the development of themes and character and mood in the twelve-hour set, I began to think about how far television has come within its own context in the past few years. I remember the days when it was the height of praise to describe a show as being like ‘a new movie every week’. The X-Files, Law & Order, Miami Vice and Star Trek: The Next Generation seemed to epitomise the early wave of this view point, as the networks seemed desperate to sell the illusion that viewers shouldn’t go out to the cinema – the can find entertainment of a similar scale on the box.

Not only can they look moody, the cast of The Wire can also act pretty damn awesome as well...

Not only can they look moody, the cast of The Wire can also act pretty damn awesome as well...

Of course, this wasn’t quite the case. No matter the loft heights that the narratives may reach (and the best television can be as compelling as the best movie or novel or play), the shows were always confined by the ceiling of their budget. So Crockett could crash a speedboat and watch it explode, but he couldn’t blow up a building, or Mulder could see an alien spaceship, but only from the distance as a sequence of blurry lights. You can really only fool the audience so often – eventually they’ll realise the champagne you’re serving is simply apple juice mixed with white lemonade. And treating television as literally a ‘home box office’ also confined the plot: each story had to be self-contained, or you couldn’t mess with the status quo too much, nor develop the characters too far beyond their original positions. It goes without saying that – unless you’re planning a franchise – movie makers rarely have to put the pieces back where they found them. Sure, shows might make a token effort – The X-Files mythology comes to mind – but it would plod rather than glide, if it moved at all.

Television isn’t filmmaking. That should go without saying. As such, it came as a bit of a surprise that it wasn’t really until the last fifteen or so years that writers and producers really embraced the idea. Movies have bigger budgets, but smaller canvas. Your plot pretty much has to fit within two hours (or four if you’re really powerful and can overpower the editor). A television show runs on average about one hundred and fifty episodes. It spans several years in the lives of a bunch of characters. Sometimes events don’t simply occur in handy forty-minute blocks.

As ever, science fiction lead the way, really – but didn’t get the credit. Babylon 5 embraced a complex narrative arc-structure that made the show nigh-impossible to casually follow. Many science fiction nuts would accuse one of the Star Trek spinoffs (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) of stealing the gimick with a densely layoured (yet still relatively accessible) two-and-a-half-year war storyline balancing a huge number of individual characters whose lives changed from week-to-week. Then again, it’s quite likely that not many people know either of these shows. The more geek-aware would note season-long arcs (again carefull constructed so as to not alienate casual followers) on Joss Whedon’s shows Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Angel.

The approach really made its jump to the mainstream with The West Wing. I love the show, but will readily admit that most of the time the plots made little-or-no-sense in-and-of-themselves, but rather played into larger arcs both in terms of narrative and character. Big events were seldom concluded within the same hour that they commenced (the shooting, the impeachment hearings, the re-election campaign, the middle east initiative, the primaries and the general election, for example). The show went down as the prestigious pretentious drama it was intended to be, but it began to signal that maybe a change was coming.

This was taken on Jack's day off...

This was taken on Jack's day off...

About the same time, Home Box Office began producing its own run of series. Oz, though I love it, was a glorified night time soap opera and a respectable first attempt. The Sopranos is generally acknowledged as their masterpiece, though those seeking to be a little contrarian will champion The Wire as the best HBO series. Either way, both unfolded almost as gigantic miniseries, needing to be viewed as a whole to be appreciated in their full beauty. Sure, most episodes of The Sopranos unfold around an issue of the week in Tony’s life, but these generally play as a solo movement in a larger concerto. I know nothing about music, so I don’t know if I messed up that metaphor.

At the same time, regular television shows such as Lost proved that modern audiences could follow an interweaving, no-answers-up-front style of storytelling, with a carefully-constructed six year arc. Well, either that or they’re making it up as they go along, depending on who you ask. Love it or loathe it, it represents a huge step forward in modern storytelling – contestably one story in 150 smaller chapters. A more obvious example is 24, where literally every hour on screen is an hour in Jack Bauer’s really bad day. The advent of the DVD market at around this time undoubtable helped these shows reach people who want a big story, but are afraid of missing an episode on the television.

I love that television seems to have found a unique way of telling a story. That’s how media evolves. Film took a while to find its feet (initially stalling in boring uninspired adaptations of stage plays), emulating an earlier media form much as television aspired to. Sure, you’ll still find a movie-of-the-week style show or two (Law & Order and the CSI franchise spring to mind), but even those shows seemingly following an episodic story format will infulge the odd long game (the CSI franchise like serial killers, unsurprisingly; Life on Mars saw Sam try to get home while solving the crime o’ the week; House is as much about the protagonists many, many, many on-going issues as it is the patient of the week).

I love movies. I also love television. Variety is the spice of life.

I’m ordering the fourth season of The Wire now…